If you have never been to Utah it’s difficult to describe the incredible variety, beauty, and splendor of its many national parks. The parks draw several million visitors to them each year, partly from the convenience and ease with which you can go from one to the other, and partly because no matter how many times you return the parks continue to astonish every time. There are 13 National Park Service (NPS) units in Utah, but the “Mighty 5” National Parks draw the majority of visitors each year. Check out the guide below to see how to navigate the Mighty 5 Parks and some key hikes to do in order to enjoy this state’s amazing display of nature.
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1. Witness some of nature's most amazing natural formations in Arches National Park
If you’ve decided to take the North to South route, meaning you’re coming from Salt Lake City down through park country, then Arches National Park should be the first spot on your list. The 18 mile (29 km) scenic drive that winds through the park is a marvel in and of itself, as it ascends to overlook a vast expanse of eroded red rock and ancient sandstone towers. This otherworldly park will make you feel like you’ve literally left the world behind you and traveled to another planet filled with impossibly delicate arches and Martian like sand. If you’re short on time, be absolutely sure not to miss the Delicate Arch hike which is beautiful at any time of the day or night and definitely worth waking up at 4am to watch the sun rise through.
Arches National Park
Address: Arches National Park, Moab, Utah 84532
Website: Arches National Park
2. Visit Mars... I mean Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park neighbors Arches, less than a 30 minute drive away, and shares some of Arches’ unique characteristics but is a tribute to the unending variety of nature. Since it is so massive, Canyonlands has four separate districts, three land districts including the rivers themselves, and each district is diverse, wild, and wonderful. Because there are so many different districts, hikes and opportunities, Canyonlands is really what you make of it, but the park is famous for its majestic, looming lookout “Island in the Sky”. This hike is one you definitely won’t want to miss, as looking out over the infinite expanse of red sand and alien formations will make you feel as if you have, in fact, taken a wrong turn and ended up on Mars.
Canyonlands National Park
Address: Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah
Website: Canyonlands National Park
3. Explore the cathedrals and valleys of Capitol Reef National Park
The least visited of the Mighty 5 Parks, but in no way lesser than any of them, Capitol Reef National Park is a beautiful contrast of sandstone cathedrals against flat plains of orange rock. It takes a little more effort to explore Capitol Reef National Park, but as a result it also winds up being one of the emptier parks – meaning fewer people on the many hiking routes to breath-taking temples, narrow canyons, and inviting bridges. Definitely make time for the Cathedral Valley hike, but the park also contains some ancient petroglyphs and beautiful, rolling hills that do not halt until stopped by the sky.
Capitol Reef National Park
Address: 3000 Utah 24, Torrey, Utah 84775
Website: Capitol Reef National Park
4. Make friends with the Hoodoos Bryce Canyon National Park
Picture this: a valley filled with pillars of scarlet sandstone, sprinkled with trees, and topped very lightly with a blinding white blanket of snow that shines bright against the orange ground. Now try and picture descending into this canyon, until the tops of the stone pillars tower above your head, sheltering you and tinting the sunlight around you with a rich, warm hue. If you’ve got a good imagination, you’ve just experienced about a tenth of what Bryce Canyon has to offer. The incredible canyon is breath-taking from every angle and filled with friendly hoodoos, all of which are as unique as fingerprints. While you’re hiking the Rim Trail (or if you’re feeling adventurous the Fairy Trail) have lunch under the shade of a tree, pose next to your favorite hoodoo, or gaze out over the top of the hidden canyon with the wind at your back.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Address: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Website: Bryce Canyon National Park
5. Journey back in time to Zion National Park
Last, but not least, is my personal favorite. Zion National Park. If Arches feels like entering another planet, Zion feels like traveling back to the dawn of time. You’ll definitely want to spend quite a bit of time here, as every corner of this massive park is filled with awe-inspiring views and the wonderous urge to stand still that only truly natural surroundings can bring. So take the time to experience everything: from hiking, to rafting, to stargazing, to looking down at the valley you’ve just conquered from the top of Angel’s Landing. Zion is very family friendly, and has a variety of hikes with many levels of difficulty, but hikes you won’t want to miss include: Emerald Pools (a gentle hike that leads you to a hidden outlook with pools of emerald water), the Narrows (strenuous, but perfect for keeping cool during summer), and Angel’s Landing (strenuous, but absolutely, positively worth it).
Zion National Park
Address: Zion National Park South Entrance Ranger Station, Springdale, UT 84767
Website: Zion National Park
Explore. Dream. Discover.
Mark Twain’s famous quote could not be better suited than for an adventure through the astonishing and wonder-inducing landscape of Utah’s National Parks. If you like adventure, or beauty, or having your breath taken away (essentially if you have any semblance of an adventurous streak) then you will fall in love with Utah’s Mighty 5 and all they have to offer. Whether it’s stargazing atop the fiery and alien sand of Arches, relaxing in the crimson shelter of Bryce Canyon, or scaling an impossible mountain in Zion, you’re sure to have an extraordinary and unforgettable time.
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